Creative Director
End of Year Blog

By Graham Sturt
Creative Director at VBAT

VBAT’s breakout session with Stefan Sagmeister on Urban Issues at What Design Can Do 2015.

One of the many things that make working here at VBAT so great is the range of unique personal and business opportunities that can almost miraculously appear at any given time. No year is ever the same and it’s usually guaranteed that you will end one with a string of highly memorable experiences to add to your memoirs.

2015 has been no exception in this respect and it will go down as a year of a number of great creative achievements across the company.

In no particular order and with one for each month, here are 12 of the stand-out moments of this year:

1. Meet Market 2015 — #asksagmeister

With our Meet Market initiative we are always looking for new ways to connect with and attract the very best young talent out there. This means constant reinvention of everything we do year on year to ensure Meet Market remains relevant and appealing to it’s target audience. Building on the success of our dual location exhibitions in Amsterdam and Mexico City in 2014 we made a conscious decision this year to change tack and try something completely different again. Our strategy for 2015 was to partner with existing design related events to create highly memorable Meet Market pop-up experiences. For us taking Meet Market to events where we were guaranteed to find our target audience made good sense and promised to maximise our exposure far beyond what we had previously achieved.

In May we had our first opportunity to test this when we partnered with the fantastic design event What Design Can Do (WDCD) to hold a break-out session at De Balie theatre in Amsterdam city centre. Ever ambitious with our plans we pitched to WDCD the idea of hosting a live Q&A session on the subject of Urban Issues with their headline speaker Stefan Sagmeister; one of today’s most renowned graphic designers. Fortunately Richard van der Laken of WDCD loved our pitch and I was soon put in contact with Sagmeister personally to discuss our plan.

Running up to the actual event there were multiple initiatives to collect crowdsourced questions. One of these was to ask our online audience to share their thoughts with us via Facebook and Twitter using #asksagmeister. This proved to be really popular and we were quickly able to collect a diverse range of interview questions. Additionally we hit the road for a series of lecture sessions at Dutch design academies to explain what we do at VBAT and give their design students the chance to record questions for Sagmeister. Finally, to encourage interaction, we also left the possibility for the audience to ask questions live at the event

And then the big day was upon us, with all tickets for the event completely sold out.

With a full house filled with design students, clients and design enthusiasts the Q&A turned out to be one of the major highlights of my year.

After all it’s not every day you get the opportunity to interview Stefan Sagmeister in front of a live audience. Sagmeister himself was incredibly gracious, highly articulate and ultimately great company. His unquestioning cooperation really made the event special for both the assembled audience and everyone involved behind the scenes in putting it together. #thankyousagmeister

2. A great year for VBAT retail

Our retail expertise continued to grow this year with a number of new clients secured and converted into truly outstanding pieces of work.

An excellent partnership with NS (Dutch Railways) blossomed into two great on-station retail design concepts — Kiosk and Enoki.

Both of these helping to support NS’s ambitious station rejuvenation plans and providing living proof of the added value of design.

The new NS Kiosk at Amstel Station, Amsterdam. Credit: John Lewis Marshall

On the Dutch high street we also made a great breakthrough with the launch of our rebrand of the leading drug store Etos. With a future proof interpretation of Etos’s tradition and heritage as the specialist quality drug store we overhauled both their store formats and their Private Label packaging. Look out for the fresh new Etos stores as they roll-out next year.

With a number of other exciting and significant projects in development 2016 looks bright for retail at VBAT.

3. Our first year as mentor agency with D&AD New Blood Academy

In the Summer, as a logical extension of our Meet Market activities, we partnered with D&AD to become a mentoring agency for their highly successful New Blood Academy.

Billed as the ultimate young creative design and advertising course, D&AD New Blood Academy is an exclusive boot camp for New Blood Pencil winners.
In July myself and two fellow VBATers travelled to D&AD HQ in the heart of East London’s creative community to introduce ourselves to the Academies rising stars and to hold an innovative brainstorming workshop on the subject of one of our packaging cases.

The D&AD New Blood Academy in Shoreditch, London
With our own unique Amsterdam perspective and highly memorable brainstorming techniques we proved to be a hit with the New Blood Academy and following the event received a number of internship applications from their young creatives.

Subsequently we also learnt that D&AD would like to continue with VBAT as a mentor agency in 2016. A fruitful initial collaboration which we really hope to build upon.

4. Dutch Design Heroes — Wim Crouwel

This year saw me launch an initiative close to my heart, which has been 20+ years in the planning. Called ‘Dutch Design Heroes’ it’s a series of informal interviews with, in my opinion, some of the Netherlands most influential living designers.

The end goal is to provide some unique insights into the greatness of design produced here in the Netherlands.

Aiming high to kick-off the series I first got in contact with Wim Crouwel, who to my complete delight welcomed me into his home for a wonderful afternoon of creative conversation.

Graham Sturt in conversation with Dutch Design Hero Wim Crouwel. Credit: Eva Cremers.

Spurred on by the positive reaction to this I will continue in 2016 to interview a number of other Dutch Design Heroes to hear and post their stories on our blog —

5. ADCN Judging

In February I had the great privilege to be a member of the Brand & Communication Design jury of the newly rebranded ADCN Lampen Awards. Also present on this jury were Marina Willer (Chair) — Partner, Pentagram London, Thijs Biersteker — Creative Director & CTO, Moore, Liza Enebeis — Creative Director, Studio Dumbar, Manuel Ferrari — Creative Director, The Ambassadors, Willem van Roosmalen — Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Fontanel and Narda van ’t Veer — Founder, Unit.

The Brand & Communication Design jury of the ADCN Lampen Awards 2015.

Overall being on the jury was a really rewarding experience and the whole ADCN organisation facilitated it really well. What was clear is that there is still work to be done to create greater awareness of these awards amongst the Dutch design industry. It is evident, however, that ADCN are working hard to improve this and look forward with interest to see, what I hope, will be a greater number of quality design entries in 2016. Thanks to Lode, Dinesh and all at ADCN for their enthusiasm and support for the Dutch Creative industries throughout this year.

6. Europride 2016
 Next year will see VBAT reach the finale of our three year creative collaboration with Amsterdam Gay Pride (AGP).

Always intended to go out with a ‘big bang’ the latest incarnation of our impactful designs will adorn one of the biggest LGBT events, Europride, in August 2016 here in Amsterdam.
Sketch proposal of VBAT’s visual identity for Europride 2016.

Building year on year on our ‘celebrate diversity’ creative concept we are all truly proud of the part we’ve played in helping AGP to grow their brand. To hear from the organisers that Amsterdam Gay Pride is now considered to be amongst one of the most recognised Pride events globally is no small accomplishment and makes us proud. Good luck to Lucien, Anita, Irene and all at AGP with the organisation of Europride 2016. We look forward to working with you to achieve a highly memorable festival.

7. Het Concertgebouw — Increased cultural connection

As a commercial design agency we don’t often get the opportunity to work within the Arts & Culture sector. When we do, however, we always approach the assignment with the same mindset we would for any of our other clients. To act differently would be counter-intuitive to us and go against our agency DNA. Therefore when Het Concertgebouw, considered one of the finest concert halls in the world, commissioned us to refresh the visual style of their programming we relished the challenge.

Taking inspiration from the iconic gilded lyre on top of the building we created a new communication grid with an instantly recognisable character that adds quality to the Het Concertgebouw brand as well as to every artist or event advertised.
VBAT’s refresh of the visual style of the programming of Het Concertgebouw.

Alongside application to the usual brand carriers we also developed an audio branding concept and a new animation style, giving a new depth to the idea of a ‘visual’ identity. The new year will also see us working on the design of their Robeco Summer Nights season and a number of other special projects that will break cover later in the new year. Many thanks to the team at Het Concertgebouw for being such a wonderful client. We look forward to creating even greater work with you in 2016.

8. Greater connection with design academies means even greater interns

This year, as we’ve made stronger connections with design academies both here and overseas, we’ve started to harvest the fruits of these labours in the form of some really outstanding interns.

It’s been a real pleasure to see the increased number of applications and to interview so many ambitious and motivated design students.

For those of you who completed an internship with us this year thank you for your hard work and to those confirmed to join us in 2016 we look forward to working with you.

A workshop at VBAT for more than 100 students from St. Lucas College. Credit: Eva Cremers.

We are always really happy to hear from design students. If you’d like to be considered for an internship at VBAT send us a covering letter, your CV and work samples to

9. BNO NEXTpack

Our connection with the Dutch professional design organisation BNO grew ever stronger this year as we joined forces with a number of other packaging agencies to form a new professional alliance called NEXTpack, (formerly the Dutch Packaging Design Initiative).

Set up primarily to promote the great packaging design work created here in the Netherlands the group has been highly active and perhaps surprisingly convivial given the competitive nature of our industry.

One NEXTpack initiative that really stood out this year was the BNO Packaging Talent Award. I had the honour of chairing the awards event at Dutch Design Week in October and it seems to have been really well received by all of the young designers who entered. Considering that as a discipline packaging isn’t well represented in the Dutch design academy syllabus it was great to see so many students producing a number of well considered and executed entries.

Graham Sturt speaking at Materials XL Future Concepts, Dutch Design Week Eindhoven.

Congratulations to BNO for getting behind NEXTpack and to all of the other partner agencies within it for their dedication to making it work.

10. VBAT Refreshing Awards

This year we launched our first ever internal creative awards scheme. Simply called the Refreshing Awards their aim each year will be to help us identify and celebrate the best work created here at VBAT.

To maintain objectivity and to get an outside perspective we also approached a number of respected industry figures to act as our jury.

Confirmed on the jury for 2015 were Greg Quinton — Executive Creative Director of The Partners, Lode Schaeffer — Chairman of ADCN & Creative Director of Indie, Richard van der Laken — Founder of What Design Can Do and De Designpolitie and Peter Barwick — Global Packaging Manager of Nestlé. With 12 entries submitted to our superstar jury there was intense speculation amongst the agency in the run up to the awards presentation ceremony at our annual Christmas dinner. In the end the runaway points winner on the evening was our elegant and intelligent visual identity plus for Het Concertgebouw.

Winning work from the VBAT Refreshing Awards 2015: Het Concertgebouw visual identity. Credit: John Lewis Marshall.

Congratulations to all of the team that worked on the project and to the judges in particular for giving us the immense benefit of their combined wisdom.

11. More C-Word Talks

This year we took the C-Word initiative up a level with 7 highly diverse guest speakers gracing our bar for what turned out to be a number of truly inspiring creative talks.

Claes Iversen giving a C-Word Talk at VBAT.
Avinash Changa’s C-Word Talk and VR experience at VBAT.

Many thanks to creative entrepreneur Wout Arets, What Design Can Do founder Richard van der Laken, Illustrator Vic Lee, Storyteller Ron Bunzl, Fashion Designer Claes Iversen, VR guru Avinash Changa and Visual Artist Marcus Lyall for taking the time to share with us your own special brand of creativity.

12. Getting our name out there

As Creative Director of VBAT, outside of purely designing, I’ve had to develop a whole new set of skills along the way. One of them, representing the agency, was well exercised this year with several memorable opportunities in the press.

Mainly due to some exceptionally good cooperation with the design press this year we’ve seen some great articles run about the agency.

In particular features by Dude magazine (on the special chemistry between chairman Eugene Bay and I), Fontanel (advice for young designers) and The Drum (The Amsterdam Issue) have managed to significantly raise VBAT’s profile and increase awareness of the agency to a wider audience. Added to that I’ve also had the added unexpected benefit of being able to tangibly show my family what I actually do for a living.

Graham Sturt and Eugene Bay in Dude. Credit: Marcus Koppen.

Many thanks to everyone we worked with at Dude, The Drum, Fontanel, Branding Magazine, Marketing Tribune, Retail Trends and Fonk this year.

In summing up 2015 was an unexpectedly rewarding year which seemed to go by all too quickly. Maybe it was a sign of being busy but personally it felt like the year whizzed by in the blink of an eye. Looking back on what we achieved though I’m really proud of everyone here who helped to make so many of these happen.

With our continued push for excellence in everything we do we again increased our international footprint, working in 22 countries this year, and being rewarded for our endeavours with 5 professional awards.

We also got the opportunity to take ourselves out of our comfort zone on a number of occasions and to great effect. This experience, in adapting to change, will only help us in the future as the design profession as we know it evolves and transforms over the next few years.

Finally a big thank you to all of our clients in 2015 who placed their trust in us to do great things with their brands. These special relationships are always treated as a great privilege and we look forward to working with you all again next year.

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written by Graham Sturt
Creative Director at VBAT
edited by Connie Fluhme

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